The central relationship of HBO’s new teen drama series, Euphoria, is the budding friendship between the show’s protagonist Rue (Zendaya) and the new girl in town, Jules Vaughn (Hunter Schafer). During Episode 2, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” Jules name-drops a TV series that’s the perfect show for her character to be obsessed with: Madoka Magica. But this magical girl anime also feels like the perfect reflection of Euphoria in anime form.
Midway through Euphoria’s second episode, Rue and Jules ride their bicycles through an orange grove in a beautiful scene that overlooks the mountains in the distance. Up until this point in Episode 2, we’ve seen their friendship flourish, as if we’re watching kindred spirits finally discover one another laughing over the school lunch table. On the edge of the grove, Rue awkwardly invites Jules over to her house for dinner, but Jules has to have a “capital ‘F’, capital ‘D’ Family Dinner” with her father. After that, she has big plans to watch her favorite anime.
“I’m probably going to do some homework, binge-watch some Madoka Magica…” Jules says, trailing off. It’s a small, innocent moment that speaks to their dynamic as friends, but when you know more about this anime series, you begin to understand a bit more about how Madoka Magica informs not only Jules’ fashion choices, but Euphoria as a whole.
The full title of this hugely popular anime series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, translates to “Magical Girl Madoka Magica.” Protagonist Madoka Kaname and her friend Sayaka Miki meet a cat-like magical creature that offers them a “contract” to fight witches as “Magical Girls” in exchange being granted a single wish. The initial premise feels somewhat derivative — but it’s far more than just another example of the magical girl subgenre popularized by stories like Sailor Moon.
At the surface level, Madoka Magica is full of the typical saccharine character designs with hair more colorful than their outfits, riddled with escapist fantasy for young girls who wish their lives were more interesting. Jules emulates these kinds of outfits with her own bright hair, billowing skirts, and bright pink tops. Most of her fashion choices could’ve been transplanted right out of an anime. When she talks about Madoka Magica with Rue, her eyeliner looks like multicolored neon rainbows. Like many teens, she defines herself partially by the things she loves, and the ways she chooses to spend her free time.
Just like with Jules herself, however, Madoka Magica is much more complex than it looks.
Madoka Magica deconstructs the magical girl anime subgenre with a series of dark twists. By Episode 3, Madoka’s mentor is killed by a witch. Later in the series, she discovers that Magical Girls have to give up their souls to form a Soul Gem that serves as the source of their magical powers. Her best friend’s Soul Gem is corrupted by despair, and she turns into a witch.
The dark revelations don’t even stop there: Even the magical cat creature has more sinister intentions! Without giving too much away, the series even veers into the realm of time loops and alternate realities before ending with a staggeringly cosmic scope.
Could this bizarre twists and turns inform how Euphoria explores the drug-addled, sex-crazed landscape of teen life today?
In some ways, Euphoria emulates the way that Madoka Magica breaks down our expectations, deconstructing a genre we’re already familiar with.
Euphoria isn’t like 13 Reasons Why, Riverdale, or any other teen drama that we might compare it to. Many of these series often feel unrealistic and borderline ridiculous, surprising us for the sheer shock value with serial killer subplots and more. Euphoria instead subverts our expectations at every turn. Episode 1 transforms what we expect to be a scene depicting rape into something so much more complex and nuanced, of a young girl giving consent to a sexual encounter that many people still find traumatic to watch.
Is it fully consensual sadomasochistic behavior? Is Jules mature enough to fully give consent? The law says one thing, but Euphoria says another.
Even the plot summary of Madoka Magica feels like something Euphoria riffed on in its own premise:
“She has a loving family and best friends, laughs and cries from time to time. Madoka Kaname, an eighth grader of Mitakihara middle school, is one of those who lives such a life.”
When Euphoria begins with Rue’s narration, she talks about growing up in a good middle-class household with a wonderful family. We’re led to believe that nothing out of the ordinary transformed her into an addict. There was no overt trauma she could point to, that she could blame for her addiction. Truer to real life and the honest predicament of Generation Z, these things just happen.
Both Euphoria and Madoka Magica challenge how the viewer perceives these types of narratives, so when Jules says how much she loves this anime series, it’s for more than the pretty hair and bright eyes of the characters in it. It’s for the richness the show gives to a textured universe far more complex than meets the eye.
Maybe that depth is the real part of Madoka Magica that Jules emulates?